According to the author, this book 'takes its narrative lead from folk tales and its metaphor from contemporary music'; a 'remix' of an earlier work, writes Stuart Bailey. Guest-designed divider pages and other gimmickry can't disguise what is, in fact, a basic anthology - albeit a welcome one in an industry whose technological advances and formal consequences require constant updating. Apparently intending to focus on typefaces, the book is as much a general graphic design history, demonstrating how type and its treatment (now light on screen as much as ink on paper) have become inseparable.
The book is well-paced, organised by decade. As long as the reader realises that this is merely a helpful distortion of reality, and remains aware of a bias towards the avant-garde (something that Blackwell points out in his disclaiming introduction), this is a concise and watertight primer. It is designed in 1990s techno-vernacular, in turn derived from 1960s Swiss-based International Style. This rigid, minimalist aesthetic employs pages-worth of redundant white space. Even given this excess, the large, well-reproduced images are often presented out of synch with adjacent text, where smaller images in parallel would have clarified orientation and understanding. Similarly irritating is the book's posing as a tool 'to prompt research', despite glaring omissions in a flimsy and eccentric bibliography.
With these reservations in mind, I still recommend this book for architects. Recently there has been evidence (predominantly on the continent) of a renewed interest in architectural lettering as integral component rather than afterthought. While Nicolete Gray's Lettering on Buildings remains the standard reference in this field, Blackwell's concise and well-presented type classification-guide is an essential appendix. Readers may also find interest in mapping the synchronicity in architectural and graphic development. Writing in 1928, Jan Tschichold (a Modernist-turned-traditionalist and still the century's most convincing propagandist-practitioner) observed that 'only in degenerate times can personality (as opposed to the nameless masses) become the aim of human development'. Blackwell deems this prophetic enough to be set in the largest type, sampled and repeated at the opening and close of the book. Seventy years on, our own 'degeneration' could use some of the same attitude. It would be nice to see it off the coffee table and on the streets.
Stuart Bailey is a graphic designer